Zürich, City of the Alps

Let me begin by saying without hesitation or apology that I am a cliche.

I know that it is cliche to work as a waitress and write. I know that it is cliche to travel and write. I know that it is cliche to sit on mountaintops and think about life and have some spastic sort of existential epiphany that wedges into you and cracks you open and leaves you raw and exposed for the contemplative world. I know that it is cliche to do all these things, and yet it certainly does not stop me from doing all these things.

Sunday morning, I found myself sitting atop an outlook in Switzerland, recovering from an entire wallet’s worth of Swiss chocolate, looking out over the Swiss Alps and the wandering green countryside sprawling underneath. I suddenly wondered if I was sitting in someone else’s dream, taking up valuable airspace, breathing someone else’s oxygen, exhaling my own hot carbon dioxide in someone else’s fantasy. I asked myself, “Am I supposed to be here?”

I never expected to be here. If you had told me a year ago, two years ago—any number of months or years ago—that for my 22nd birthday, I would celebrate by buying myself chocolate in Switzerland, I would have said, “Really? How on earth did I get there?”

And, honestly, I’ll admit that I don’t quite know.

Switzerland has never been one of my top destinations. I never really thought about it, probably because I kept getting it confused with Sweden and I never had any interest in going somewhere so cold (oh, my ignorance is laughable). I had always thought, “Oh, must be pretty.” Never once did I think “I should go there” or “I’d like to see it someday.” I assumed it was pretty and knew that I wasn’t wrong, but I never had a conscious thought to go and see it for myself. I was very happy to leave the first-hand experience to someone who cared about mountains and snow, someone with the guts and the money to make it happen. It was too impossible to dream about. I didn’t want it because I didn’t think I could have it.

And yet I found myself sitting there. Three days before my 22nd birthday, I was drinking white wine and fending off a spider from my German lunch and watching the sun enrobe itself in clouds over the Swiss Alps and thinking about The Hobbit because eventually all mountain ranges lead to Mordor.

I found myself realizing that this was never my deepest dream—this whole business of “seeing the world”—because I never thought I could do it. I heard stories of people’s travels and brushed those little desires aside, choosing not to consider travel because it was so laughably unfeasible. That was something other people did. That wasn’t something that happened to me. 

But, somewhere in the interim, I made it happen, and now I am living it. Somehow, somewhere in my life, I took a turn that lead me to the Swiss Alps, to Austrian castles, to Czech cathedrals, to Italian beaches. Somewhere in my life I took a turn that bore me away from everything I know and turned me inside out. Somewhere in my life I decided to upend myself. It was never something I imagined—I did it on a whim. This “Grace Carpenter Sees the World!” is only happening because I registered for AuPairWorld.com at midnight on a Tuesday when I didn’t want to do homework.

I went to Switzerland to check it off a “Last Month Scramble” travel list, but there are millions of people who would love to see what I’m seeing. There are people who have been picturing this moment their whole lives, and here I am, borrowing their dreams, hopping on some magic carpet bandwagon with a ticket I picked up on the side of the road, skipping people in line who have been waiting for years. Sitting on that mountaintop, camera in hand, I had to ask myself, “Am I supposed to be here?” 

But as I looked out across the mountain ranges and the furled-up fields, I noticed something. I could see the first looming hill, and then its peak, and then nothing; I could see the next peak behind it; I could see the following peak behind that one. I could see only the climb right in front of me and the immediate mountain face in full-frontal glory. Everything after that was just a peak, a tiny white triangle held up by swollen mounds of rock thousands of years old. And because it was cloudy, I could only see so far into the distance. The farthest peaks lurked coyly behind their pillowy curtains.

That’s really what our lives look like at any given point. We can see the immediate obstacles, the upcoming slopes that threaten just ahead, the first face. We can see the peak, the accomplishment. We can keep our eyes upturned as we grapple with the mountain and never lose sight of what’s important. We can hold onto the task at hand.

But that’s all we get. Past that, we see only a series of moments, the highlight reels of our own lives: the new city, the wedding, the baby, the house, the promotion, whatever major events we expect to see in our own mountain range. We can’t see the slopes, the cliffs, the unending valleys or plummeting chasms that yawn backstage. Sometimes our skies are cloudy and we can barely see our hands in front of us as we blunder blindly forward, only praying that we’ll make it somewhere safe. Sometimes the sun bursts through the sky and we can see endless rows of snowy crests, the breathtaking harmony of dimpled earth and irremovable promise. We can’t see everything at once; sometimes we can see nothing at all.

There is so much more to our lives than just the peaks, just as there is so much more than that staggering staircase ascending into the sky. The Alps aren’t a series of peaks, they’re a series of mountains; our lives aren’t a series of highlights, they’re a series of journeys.

I never thought I would wander. I never pictured a peak of my life thrusting me into the belly of Europe, but somehow I am here, and somehow I am astride a particular mountain that jutted into my life like a volcano roaring up from the ocean. I am absorbing the beauty I see before me without understanding what lies beyond. For now, I can revel in this stranger’s dream and say, “Yes, I went to Switzerland for my birthday,” without the sneaking suspicion that I am an imposter. I am climbing ever-so-awkwardly along this path, because nothing is impossible after all.

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